Sunday, January 25, 2009

Surrender Daily

This morning we celebrated a baptism, toward which Pastor Brad directed his opening remarks on a Sunday morning both chilly and sunny, the baptism of Keegan Michael Clark.

"God is pursuing Keegan even now," Brad said before turning his opening comments to today's theme. "We sing surrender songs, but we have parts of our lives where we want to run from God. It is a matter of willfulness vs. willingness." And we were warmly welcomed.

Announcements included the following:
1) The next women's Bible study will be February 27. Brad conveyed the message that last Friday's study was great, and it's not too late to join us.
2) "Dr. Leonard" stood to note that Feb. 14 is our Valentine's Banquet. Put it on your calendars.
3) Paula indicated that there is a church calendar on the wall by the kitchen where all church activities should be noted. This will help in organizing our church year.
4) The Secret Friends sign up sheets are still available for all women who wish to participate.

The Worship Team led us in a number of songs to prepare us for today's message, which was followed by today's baptism, which Pastor Brad explained was a "visible sign of covenant making."

Pastor became quite emotional during the baptism, reflecting on the innocence of youth and how challenging life can be later. "There are tough things coming... we need to pray for our little ones." It was a very moving ceremony as he displayed the newly baptized Keegan up and down the aisle.

The offering was taken and today's Scripture reading conducted.
Psalm 62:5-12
Mark 1:14-20

After a time of prayer for needs in the church, the sermon commenced.

Surrender Daily

Brad noted that there will be a time when we pray one of two prayers; either, "Not my will but Yours be done," or "God, not your will, but mine be done." He proceeded to draw upon events from the life of Moses to bring alive his message.

Moses was born during a time when the Pharaoh of Egypt decreed that all male children must be thrown into the river. As "chance" would have it, Moses was placed in a basket at three months of age and floated downstream. The Pharaoh's daughter found him and raised him as her own son, naming him Moses, which means, "I drew him out of the water."

Raised as he was in Pharaoh's house gave him a Golden Boy outlook on life. He was "Destiny's Child." He had power and a future. But he was aware that he was a Hebrew and still felt an identification with his people. On one occasion he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and decided something must be done. After looking this way and that, Moses took advantage of the isolated opportunity and killed the Egyptian, hiding the body and evidence of his wrongdoing.

His intentions may have been good, but instead of looking left and right he should have looked up. Did he pray before taking such extreme action? Did he acknolwedge his dependence on God?

In the midst of this story Brad noted how children are quite cute in infancy, but at age two or so they discover a new word: "No!" It's a willfulness that seems part of our nature. God gave us a will, the ability to make choices. The problem is when we want our way, our will, even if it hurts others or even contradicts God's will.

The endpoint toward which the sermon directed us was this simple prayer: "Thy will be done." In a quick summation Brad applied this to several areas of our lives.

In the workplace, some of us are in jobs where we spend our lives in "impression management." Often making a good impression is at the expense of others. In church many are aware of the importance of tithing, but haven't made an effort to move toward this spiritual discipline. Even simple things, like who gets to use the armrest on an airplane or who will yield in a discussion to allow the other to speak, we're exerting our wills or submitting to one another in love.

We begin to bring joy to God's heart when we say, "Not my will, but Thine be done. Our willfulness or decision to become willing needs to be made today.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Images of Light

With a little warm spell (the weather was above zero) and the sun sparkling off the new fallen snow, we gathered together for worship without Pastor Brad, who was speaking at Covenant Pines this morning. Chuck Vanderscheuren welcomed us to begin the service.

A number of announcements preceded a time of worship led by the Trio (Chuck, Dale, Ken) with Darlene on the keyboards. These announcements included:
1. Women's Bible Study begins Friday at 6:30 here at the church.
2. Though still many months off, we're planning a June rummage sale to raise funds and awareness for "Breaking the Chains," a program intended to help end human trafficking.
3. The Women's Circle is encouraging all women to participate in the "Secret Sister" program.
4. Paula also shared that the Women's Circle is making blankets for children in need.
5. Before starting his sermon, Leonard reminded us that the Valentine's Banquet will be held again this year on Feb. 14. As Scripture, and especially the Song of Solomon, declares, "the love between a man and a woman is to be celebrated."

Several sign up sheets were also presented for volunteers to help with coffee hour and for women interested in receiving the e-newsletter.

Today's Scripture readings:
I Samuel 3:1-10
John 1:43-51

After an offering and hymn, Leonard Armstrong delivered today's message.

Images of Light
Leonard began by telling how he'd discovered an interesting book by Anthony Flew, a renowned atheist who in 2004 wrote a book stating his beliefs had been altered and he was now a theist. Leonard returned to Barnes & Noble with the aim of buying Flew's book but it was no longer on the shelves. Flew, he said, felt that the discoveries of modern science seemed to leave an earnest inquirer with a single conclusion: the world was created by a Creator and did not just happen.

Leonard then shared an insight about Bertrand Russell, the 20th century's other most famous atheist. Russell's daughter had affirmed that her father's life was a continuous search for God.

The passages from which the message was drawn were as follows:
Isaiah 50:10-11
10 Who among you fears the LORD
and obeys the word of his servant?
Let him who walks in the dark,
who has no light,
trust in the name of the LORD
and rely on his God.
11 But now, all you who light fires
and provide yourselves with flaming torches,
go, walk in the light of your fires
and of the torches you have set ablaze.
This is what you shall receive from my hand:
You will lie down in torment.

John 1:1-9
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.
3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
6There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

And John 8:12
12When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

The Bible talks a lot about light. In Bible times, the world was darker. In contrast, today we have light pollution, almost too much light.

Even when there is no light at all, in the military we have night vision goggles so people can see when there is limited light, or none at all.

The point Isaiah makes in the passage cited is that we don't make our own light. We are to seek God's light. The false light which we create will burn out. God's light is eternal.

On the cross, why did Jesus cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It is because he was in darkness. It is in that moment of darkness that we're tempted to make our own light.

Having, creating your own light can seem good at first. But there are consequences, and there is always more to the story.

In Leviticus 9:23-10:3 we read an incredible story of the how God revealed his glory through fire that consumed an offering, initiating the priesthood. Two of Aaron's sons followed this up by putting fire in their own censers and offering them to the Lord. In God's displeasure they were slain. Leonard used this story to highlight the difference between God's light and our own.

One of the problems with making or following our own light is that we can become so blinded by it that we become deceived. We all know how it is when people choose to hear what they want to hear instead of hearing the truth, God's still, small voice.

He pointed out that one reason Madoff's Ponzi scheme succeeded is because people were so receptive to the opportunity he offered, guaranteed above-average returns on their savings. Unfortunately, in the end what is true will be revealed in God's light.

The classic passage on this subject is found in Matthew 5:14-16
14"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

The Gospel of John opens by noting that John the Baptist was a witness to the light, but never claimed to be the light. Jesus alone was able to say, "I am the light." (John 8:12)

Today, are you walking toward God's light or making your own light? Does the light within you point toward God?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

God Doesn't Give Us Answers, He Is The Answer

Pastor welcomed us by noting that today was the first Sunday after Epiphany, which speaks of Jesus revealing Himself. Sunshine filled the sanctuary as Brad introduced his theme for today, sharing how during a crisis of faith when his father died the Book of Ecclesiastes brought light into the dark places in his heart. The author of Ecclesiastes does not give all the answers to life's troubling questions, but shows us who God is.

Opening announcements included the following:
~ Sunday school begins next week. 9:00 a.m.
~ Adventure Club, confirmation and youth group activities begin this Wednesday
~ Women's Bible study begins Friday, Jan. 23
~ Women's Circle will meet this Saturday at 10:00 a.m.
~ Building Committee will meet here at the church Thursday eve at 7:00

After Darlene's introit we were treated to some special music, bluegrass style, by de Elliot Brothers, which included percussion, washtub bass, wash board, harmonicas, slide guitar and some sweet harmonies. Despite the chill outside, hearts were warmed within.

Today's Scripture readings were from Genesis 1:1-5 and Acts 19:1-7... followed by a time of prayer, which included intercession for several people battling cancer or recovering from surgeries.

God Doesn't Give Us Answers, He Is The Answer

Brad opened by talking about his time of soul searching after the loss of his father. We question everything in times like that, including our faith in God's goodness. He said that it's something akin to living life on the back slope of a question mark.

The book's author is someone who refers to himself as The Preacher. The original Hebrew word is Qohelet, which has been translated "a man who addresses an assembly."

According to Brad, rabbis had difficulty with this book. They weren't sure of its aim. By the end of the book much of it appears to be a Naturalistic religion, not necessarily God-inspired. Yet the book is included in the canon of Scripture, and it is included for good reasons, as summarized in these verses from chapter 12:9-11

9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
11 The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd.

That is to say, the wisdom here is like tent pegs which give stability in a shaky world.

Good books begin with a prelude that tell us where they're going, and usually summarize the main points in a conclusion. The Book of Ecclesiastes is no different. At the outset, the writer states "Everything is meaningless." Or another way of putting it, "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity." Life is futile.

The conclusion, however, exhibits a less pessimistic sense.

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

As Paul writes in II Corinthians 5, we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. Hence, wisdom dictates that we "fear God and keep His commandments."

One of the recurring themes in the Book of Ecclesiastes is captured in verse 2:24... "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God..." Verses 3:12, 3:22, 5:18, 8:15 and 9:7 all reiterate this theme which almost sounds Epicurean rather than Christian. "Eat drink and be merry."

Brad noted that there is a distinction between the statement, "Life is vain" and "Life is not worth living." The author of Ecclesiastes can only be understood in the of the admonition at the end to fear God and keep His commandments.

The point Pastor Brad sought to bring home today was this. There are many questions that life throws at you, especially during the hard times, and especially those challenging "Why?" questions. But there is no promise in Scripture that all these questions will get answered for us, either now or later. We all want to have pat answers, to see everything complete and have it all figured out. The truth is, you will never figure it out.

He compared it to trying to solve complicated crossword puzzles with a limited vocabulary.

Here are more verses that are challenging to wrestle with.
Eccles. 6:1-2
"I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil."
Also, vs. 9:11
"I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all."

Sometime life isn't fair. And, verses like Eccles. 2:14 make it almost seem that whether you are good or not hardly matters. "The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both." Isn't this how it feels sometimes, especially when struggling with death and loss? It's like children who build castles in the sand only to see all their creative fun washed away when the tide rolls in.

Why is this so? All our efforts seems so temporary and transitory. It all seems so empty.

In the realm of science we keep rediscovering that there is nothing new under the sun. And in the realm of history, Brad said, it is almost surprising how quickly the men of old are forgotten, and we ourselves will likewise one day be forgotten a few generations from now. This weighs heavily upon us when we begin to think deeply about these things. And as the Preacher, Qohelet, notes in chapter one verse 18, the more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know.

In point of fact, mystery is intentional, Brad stated. God intends for there to be mystery. How we respond to this makes all the difference in the world. Do we live it up? Give up? No, we're to look up.

When we study Ecclesiastes we see that it affirms three things about God. First, God is sovereign. And as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, God works all thing for good for those who love the Lord."

Second, God is good. And in His goodness, we find many blessings to help us through the difficulties of life. Don't let the questions in your heart so cloud your life that you fail to enjoy the good gifts He gives. Enjoy your food. Savor the coffee. Brad points out that it actually used to be considered a sin not to enjoy life.

Third, God is holy and just. He will bring our deeds to judgment, including not only what we do but what we didn't do, including the failure to enjoy the good things He has given.

God doesn't promise us answers, but He gives us Himself. He is God, and owes us no explanations. But He has also made other promises, including this one, "I will never leave you, I will never forsake you."

Today's sermon seemed especially heartfelt, and as "deep calls unto deep" this message spoke to many hearts today.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Decisions for the New Year

Eleven inches of snow had been predicted, so it was a relief to find less than a half dozen inches on this chilly Sunday morning in Northern Minnesota. Unploughed rural roads reduced our numbers a bit, but the service was still very special for those who were here, culminating in our celebration of the Lord's Table.

Pastor Brad Shannon welcomed us warmly. He then asked us two questions to take home with us into 2009. Are you willing to listen to God this year? And are you willing to put your trust in Him?

Several announcements followed.
1. Deacons will meet Wednesday evening on the 7th.
2. The Wednesday night youth group/Adventure Club will resume the following Wednesday on the 14th.
3. The first meeting of the Women's Bible Study will be January 23rd at 6:00 p.m. They will be reading together the book, An Ordinary Day With Jesus. Contact JoAnn Winship for details or if you would like a book.

After a time of worship and the offering was taken, Bev read the Scriptures, Jeremiah 31:7-14 and Ephesians 1:3-14.

During our prayer time we became aware of many needs in our midst. With so many hurting and going through trying times, let's continue to keep one another lifted up in prayer.

Decisions for the New Year
Pastor Brad began by noting that sometimes our familiarity with Scripture is a detriment. The result of being familiar with some of these passages hinders us from drawing new understandings. We've heard them so often, we stop really engaging the Word.

The psalmists knew that life was complicated and that the world was a dangerous place. They had experienced this, and for this reason their words are quite relevant to us today.

Today's sermon is based on Psalms 1 and 2.

1 Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.
4 Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

Read Psalm 2 here

There are two ways to walk, Brad said. It is our choice. We can choose one way or the other. Pastor Brad indicated that if we were to sum up the message of all 150 Psalms in one concise maxim, it would be "Friends, choose wisely."

A couple years ago the U.S. News & World Report offered up 50 ways to improve your life in the new year. The list included things like renovating your local part to unplugging your television set, or learning to print better photos. The number one way, they said, was to get happy.

While the suggestions may be interesting, they're not exactly inspiring. As an alternative, Pastor Brad suggested we improve our lives by asking two simple questions which are raised in Psalms 1 & 2.

The word "Blessed" is the very first word of Psalm 1. "Blessed is the man...." Interestingly Psalm 2 ends with a blessing. "Blessed are all who take refuge in Him."

Psalm 1 and much that follows is a study in contrasts between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. The righteous bear fruit. The righteous are rooted. The wicked are like chaff which the wind blows away. They have no roots. They are dispersed with the wind. There's not a whole lot too them.

The writer of Ecclesiastes made many references to the futility of chasing after wind. The wicked are caught up in the pursuit of vapor, a meaningless, empty existence.
The pattern that emerges, however, is that the wicked are the ones who choose to put themselves in their situation as outsiders looking in. Jesus, the source of life, invites all. But the choice is ours to draw near and put down roots, or remain aloof. We can choose to be receptive, or to withdraw and close ourselves off from God's free offer of blessing.

Will we be receptive to God's instruction? The blessed life comes from being willing to hear, and a willingness to be pliable.

Psalm 2 begins more globally in scope. "Why do the nations conspire and plot in vain?" But in the end it is personal as well.

The kingdom of God is unique, distinct from the kingdoms of this world. God does not find the actions of this world amusing. The question being asked here in this Psalm is, "Will we acknowledge God's rule and live in fundamental dependence on Him?"

In Psalm 1 we're reminded to live attentive to His Word. In Psalm 2 we're asked, will we acknowledge God's rule this new year and live in complete dependence on Him? Or will we choose self interest and live in fundamental dependence on ourselves?

Brad then asked rhetorically, "Who's in charge?"

Psalm 1 is clear: you must let God teach you. Psalm 2 is also clear: let God rule. As we enter the new year, let's hold fast to both of these commitments.

The service ended with the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.